Can Doug Jones win a full term in Alabama?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 17, 2019 · 11:23 AM EST

Alabama’s junior senator, Democrat Doug Jones, has been in office for only 13 months, but he’s already preparing to face voters again in 2020. With the Senate at 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer can’t afford to lose any seats next year if he hopes to win back control of the chamber. Does Jones have any chance of winning, or is the handwriting already on the wall for a GOP pick-up in Alabama?

The top race handicappers are split on Jones’s re-election prospects.

Inside Elections rates the race “Leans Republican,” while The Cook Political Report handicaps the contest as “Leans Democrat” and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball classifies it as a “Toss-up.”

Actually, I don’t agree with any of those calls, though I’m closest to Inside Elections’, where I remain a senior editor. I don’t think Jones has much chance at all of holding on to his seat next year.

Simply put, his special election win was a fluke, not likely to be repeated. 

The special
Jones, 64, served a little more than three years as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama during President Bill Clinton’s second term.

He had never been elected to office when he jumped into the Senate special election to fill the remainder of Jeff Sessions’s unexpired term.

Jones had little serious Democratic opposition, winning the primary, and the nomination, with two-thirds of the vote. But only 165,000 votes were cast in the primary, much less than half of the 423,000 votes cast on the GOP side.

No Republican received a majority of that primary’s vote, so the party had a runoff between the top-two finishers: former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (38.9 percent); and appointed incumbent and former state Attorney General Luther Strange (32.8 percent).

While the national GOP establishment was strongly behind Strange, third-place primary finisher Rep. Mo Brooks (19.7 percent) endorsed Moore.

Brooks called the runoff “an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first and the Washington swamp that hopes to buy our Senate seat and put America last.”

Moore won the runoff with 54.6 percent of the vote and moved into the special election as a damaged nominee.

However, many national Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who had preferred Strange, rallied around Moore’s candidacy, hoping to keep the seat in GOP hands.

Moore brought a lifetime of political baggage to the Dec. 12, 2017, special election, including being removed from the bench once, being suspended from the bench another time, alleged ties to white nationalist groups, and allegations of sexual misconduct over the years.

Jones ended up squeezing past Moore 50 percent to 48.3 percent in a major upset — and the first Senate victory for a Democrat in Alabama since Richard Shelby was re-elected in 1992. (Shelby switched to the GOP after the 1994 elections.)

2020 outlook
Jones’s special election victory was entirely due to Moore’s nomination.

It was not a repudiation of Trump, a reflection of the state’s partisan realignment or evidence of Jones’ unique appeal.

Fairly or unfairly, Moore was seen by many state voters, including conservatives and Republicans, as a sexual predator, and some of those voters either cast their ballots for Jones or stayed home on Election Day.

In a sense, the special election became a referendum on Moore.

Jones, who had no legislative record that needed defending, campaigned as a moderate Democrat.

That made him acceptable to some voters looking for an alternative to the former judge. While partisan Republicans and conservatives still saw a vote for Jones as a vote against Trump and his conservative agenda, others simply regarded Moore as unacceptable.

Indeed, given all of Moore’s personal and political baggage, and a career of confrontation and controversy, it’s remarkable that he won a Republican Senate primary and almost won the vote in the special election.

Alabama remains as Republican as it has been for the past decade or two.

The GOP vote in the state has been stable during the past four presidential races. George W. Bush drew 62.5 percent in the 2004 presidential contest, while John McCain drew 60.3 percent four years later. Mitt Romney received 60.6 percent of the vote in 2012, and Trump won 62.1 percent in 2016.

Trump remains popular in the state. A December 2018 Morning Consult poll of the states found that his job approval had slipped in Alabama from 62 percent in January 2017 to 58 percent last month, a relatively small dip.

His populism appeals to many white voters in the state. If Republicans select a 2020 nominee without Moore’s baggage — which should be easy — Jones will face a fundamentally different challenge.

He will need to get the votes of Republicans and conservatives who remain loyal to Trump and to the Republican agenda on taxes, spending, immigration, health care, abortion and gay/transgender rights.

Jones hasn’t been the most liberal Democrat, but his high-profile vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could well be enough to define him to Alabama voters as liberal and anti-Trump. (West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who narrowly won re-election in November from another very Republican state, was the lone Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh’s nomination.)

Given the state’s fundamentals, I don’t see how the Alabama race can be rated anything other than “Likely Republican.”

The state is polarized along racial and partisan lines, and the 2020 Senate race is likely to look nothing like the 2017 contest, when the Republican nominee had baggage that was disqualifying.

Obviously, Jones’ prospects would improve if the Republicans select another damaged Senate nominee, or even if Democrats nominate a more appealing presidential nominee (possibly like former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper).

So, while there are developments that could change Jones’ prospects, making them better or even worse than they start, the reality of the 2020 Alabama Senate race is simple: Doug Jones is a Democrat and a moderate in a state that is very Republican and very conservative. He starts, at least in my book, as a heavy underdog for re-election.